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Ethics in the Everyday: Unique Challenges in Student Journalism

As well as being a research assistant for the Research Ethics Association, I have had the amazing opportunity of being the deputy editor for the University of Bath’s student magazine BathTime. Over the last semester, we encountered unique challenges in our running of the magazine: sometimes practical, oftentimes financial. Throughout all this, ethical considerations have always been a priority. In this blog, I wanted touch upon some of the unique ethical challenges that I encountered.

Our first feature was my own investigation into the cost-of-living crisis on campuses. There were multiple focuses within the piece, yet the overarching theme concerned how expensive being a student at the university is. In trying to find out if the help is enough, it was a challenge to remain neutral when universities across England reported record braking levels of cash. As a student that had been personally affected and continues to be by the increasing costs, I felt it important to evaluate whether what the university was doing was working. Within this was a unique risk to reputation that everyone in the story faced. Foremost, the university was the target of criticism with a spotlight on a flawed accommodation system and expensive campus rents. Outside of that, this would be the first feature of the year for our new committee. As I was writing the story, I knew I had to create a piece that reflected the values and aims of our magazine; I subscribed to the mantra ‘student news, student voices’ when editing all work including my own. With the benefit of hindsight, I still believe it was an effective and important cover story as we were able to recruit from people interested in the first print edition and highlight the rising costs of university education.

How many students does it take to run a magazine? Perhaps the biggest issue that all of us on the committee and our contributors faced was creating a work culture that recognised our unique roles. We were all undergraduate students, all at different stages of our degrees: freshers trying to cite and final years structuring their dissertations with a few postgraduates sending in articles whilst on a trip. We all cared about the magazine and, as we grew and created links with local partners, the workloads and responsibilities grew in a very quick time. What started as four of us on a committee grew into a team that began ‘cycling back’ to emails from press release groups and hosting podcasts. Things got serious. Fast.

The ethical dilemma we faced on the committee was reminding ourselves we were students. Within academia, this consideration would be called ‘ethics of self’. Sandra Haegert surmises the relationship between the ‘one-caring’ and the ‘cared for’. Practically warning that if we, the responsible one-caring committee group, failed to practice care for the ethical self then impacts would include a decline in feeling for the ‘cared for’ group and a diminishing of self. The ethics of the self is commonly missed in consideration of ethical applications within research however our unique situation forced us into prioritising the validation of the ethical self. We were amateurs. We weren’t getting paid, and we were working to our own deadlines and aims. Our ethical challenge was to keep what we were doing an enjoyable extra-curricular that yielded validation of our journalistic pursuits and, for some, supported postgraduate applications. We needed to maintain our own work/life balance and ensure other students wellbeing.

I admit, at the beginning of the year I was guilty of abandoning my ethical self. Spending hours searching for copyright images on a Sunday night for a weekly website refresh soured my perspective. Goals of complete aesthetic overhauls became requirements that, when not met, signalled a failure. Thankfully, my esteemed editor-in-chief Lucy Acheson provided guidance on this issue when I came to her with lists and plans as long as the next print edition of the magazine: this is not a job. It was something we all chose to do, chose what level of involvement we wanted. What responsibility we had was ours. What followed after this conversation was a short break from the magazine to refresh my perspective and beat the burn out. It allowed a reconnection with my ethical self and, in turn, a reconnection with the care and passion I had for student journalism.

Recently, the second print edition of the year was released, and I had the opportunity to contribute to another cover story. We had another emotionally charged issue that students were facing: sexual health. The initial cover story because of it being a debut publication and targeting the weaknesses of our university had the weight of reputation risk to it. Over the year we had established ourselves enough that we were confident in tackling another increasingly sensitive issue.

The largest ethical issue here was the usual: privacy. Specifically, the right to privacy. We knew we could ensure the anonymity of people that contributed to our story through anonymising accounts, promise confidentiality and minimise any potential harm to the contributor by creating a simple 1-to-1 conversation in a private location, ensuring follow up prior to publication that they would still be comfortable . However, justifying the right to invade that privacy on a sensitive issue was a conversation we were constantly having. The natural resolution to covering this issue was engaging with local sexual health services and the Students Union to increase the scope and goals of the piece. Our report on the barriers to sexual health grew into a transformational project that informed on services students could access, advised the student union on changes they could make to be more inclusive and effective whilst giving a voice to local sexual health professionals. In forcing us to challenge our journalistic prying, an ethics-oriented approach encouraged a project with real transformational impact.

These are just some of the unique ethical considerations BathTime student magazine have faced in just one semester. If you are interested in any of these articles, you can visit our website

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